Assessment Opinion

The Death of Curriculum-Based Assessment

By Justin Baeder — February 03, 2011 2 min read
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Remember the phrase “guaranteed and viable curriculum” from Mike Schmoker’s book Results Now? Curriculum matters—what we actually teach students day to day and over their years of schooling has an enormous impact on what they learn. This is obvious on its face, but I’m concerned that the recent focus on accountability and standardized testing is drawing attention away from the importance of curriculum, and of assessment within curriculum.

In the best-case scenario, rigorous state standards (and soon, national common core standards) are mapped closely onto a well-articulated, district-wide curriculum supported by robust instructional materials and professional development. The strength of such a system is that it actually specifies when and how each concept and skill will be taught. The realities of schooling may prevent students from experiencing exactly this scope and sequence of instruction, but it’s better than a system in which a patchwork of individual decisions leaves little chance that students will master all of the content in the standards.

Since our national attention has become fixated on standardized test scores over the past decade under NCLB, less and less attention has been paid to curriculum. What we actually teach and how we assess student progress through this curriculum have an enormous impact on our ability to improve student learning.

This is the fundamental weakness of assessment for accountability: We don’t learn what students are learning or failing to learn in the specific curriculum they’re being taught. And this type of assessment information is the only kind we can use immediately to adjust instruction to better meet student needs.

Now that VAM (value-added measurement) is included in teacher evaluations by law in many states, I predict that less and less attention will be paid to the information we derive from our curriculum-based assessments (CBAs). Clearly, the tragedy of this shift is that CBAs hold the greatest potential for making immediate improvements in student learning.

But policymakers and systemic leaders focus on standardized assessments and accountability-oriented responses, because they have no direct control over short-cycle improvements in student learning based on CBAs. Teachers can either use CBAs to make improvements to their instruction or not, and policymakers generally have no idea whether this is taking place, because their monitoring systems are about outcomes, not the professional and collaborative processes that teachers actually engage in. We may all read Rick DuFour’s books on professional learning communities, but if we focus all of our attention on standardized tests, we’ll stop paying attention to how teachers are working together to improve teaching and learning.

I’m not opposed to using standardized assessments to track student learning outcomes. We must continue to obtain and use externally comparable measures of our success. But for improving student learning, let’s not forget that the real power is in the assessments built into our curriculum.

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